Of all the former colonies to which Britain has left behind the Westminster model of democracy perhaps none so obviously resembles the UK in its politics as Canada. Canadians have a House of Commons with 338 MPs elected by first past the post, an appointed Senate and Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. The province of Quebec shares many parallels to Scotland, with a strong national identity and two independence referendums (in 1980 and 1995). The parties even have similar names, the traditional major parties being the Liberals and Conservatives (nicknamed the ‘Tories’).
In other ways Canada differs. It is a federal system, and it has a written constitution, but like Britain, Canada has a long history of need for electoral reform.
The Liberal Party of Canada has held power for 69 years of the 20th century. Often referred to as a slightly centre-left party, the Liberals in reality governed through shifting coalitions of voters.
The only way the centre-right Progressive Conservatives (PCs), could defeat them was to put together an even greater coalition. Such a coalition was put together by the PCs for the 1984 election by the party’s leader Brian Mulroney. His coalition featured three notable components. Firstly the Red Tories from the East of Canada (similar to British One Nation conservatism). Secondly, the Blue Tories from Western Canada (similar to American style conservatism) and thirdly soft nationalists from Quebec on a platform to recognise Quebec’s ‘distinct society’. On this platform Mulroney’s PCs won slightly more than half of all votes and three quarters of the seats. He also swept Quebec, winning 58 seats to 17 for the Liberals in what had long been the Liberals’ fortress.
However, after nine years in power Mulroney’s coalition splintered in 1993 as former PC MP Lucien Bouchard’s Quebec separatist Bloc Quebecois won 54 seats on 13.5% of the vote. In the West, the Reform Party, a right-wing, populist movement won 52 seats on 18.7% of the vote. The PCs, meanwhile, collapsed to only 16% of the vote and just 2 seats. The Liberals won a majority with the Bloc Quebecois in the odd position of official opposition.
Over the next decade the PCs and Reform Party (later the Alliance) debated merger under the slogan ‘unite the right’, the division between the two parties meaning they could never overcome Canada’s First Past the Post electoral system. Their 2003 merger, almost immediately turned the Liberal Party majority into a minority in 2004, taking power themselves as a minority government in 2006 and then a majority in 2011.
Canada has had 12 minority governments since 1867. As the Canadian academic Dennis Pilon pointed out in our report Working Together minority governments in Canada have often been popular and successful – Canada’s universal healthcare system, Medicare, owes its existence to one.
It is fair to say that the Conservatives have been seen by many controversial and polarising in power. But where once a divided right allowed the Liberals almost unquestioned access to power, now a divided centre and left, between the Liberals and the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) did the same.
Today Canadians go to the polls. Early in the race the polls indicated a close three way race. As recently as the 1st of October one poll had the Conservatives and NDP on 29% each and the Liberals on 31%. But as the race has gone forwards the Liberals have accelerated into the lead in part because of NDP supporters fearing a Conservative win. Yet between them these two parties have 60% of the vote.
Canada has long needed electoral reform. First Past the Post has forced parties to create artificial coalitions of voters, which they can find difficult to satisfy. It has seen party strength defined by their concentration of the vote into small regions of Canada, in the West for the Reform Party, and in Quebec for the Bloc Quebecois while other parties such as the PCs struggle from a spread out vote. It has seen parties elected to government on the basis of a relatively small portion of public support even when a large majority oppose them.
Canada should reform its system, but it is also a stark reminder of why we should do the same.